Director Psalmayene 24 and actor-poet Justin Weaks join forces again in Flow, bridging the gap between Old Skool rappers and new age Flowetry performers to trace the tragic footsteps of seven self-styled street storytellers.
In 2017 Psalmayene 24 earned a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Direction and Justin Weaks took home a Helen Hayes Award as one of a five-member Outstanding Ensemble for the groundbreaking play Word Becomes Flesh at Theater Alliance .
Now going solo at Studio Theatre as the 7th Storyteller in Flow, Justin channels six other storytellers while being sucked into a parallel urban universe on his way to becoming a legit actor by Breeze, the neighborhood lush who lives in a shack behind the liquor store.
Like the dozen-plus characters in Flow, this may read as a wandering hip-hop intergenerational cover, but that is how Flow feels.
DJ Nick “the 1da” Hernandez, sporting a stingy brim hat and a scruffy beard, sets a mystical mood with his blue sample keyboard propped on a double stack of milk crates holding vintage vinyl.
But it is Justin Weaks’s seamless stream-of-character monologues and dialogues that carry the 90-minute mindbending journey through the dangerous curves and blind corners leading to Breeze’s shack. Weaks’s brilliant androgyny allows him to channel six other male and female characters and their collection of toxic antagonists from stoop to stoop as they systematically fall by the wayside like the Last Poets of yesteryear.
The 7th Storyteller is an ambitious would-be actor who gets lured into a seductive Street Life U Turn behind the liquor store as Breeze introduces him to the Project Ho, The Preacher, Ground Game, Jacoba, Nubian Griot, and The Dancer.
A pounding rainstorm rolls into the hood as gunshots ring out and DJ “the 1da” ducks for cover as 7th voices the staccato sounds of urban trauma with beede-ka-ka tones and guttural call-and-response vocal bridges with the sound of Zuu!
“Old Cheesy was gone,” 7th realized after the third day of introductions to the other six storytellers, as the percussive beat of James Brown sends 7th into a frenzied dance with “chitlin circuit” splits as the deft video work of Studiio Box Creative director captures overhead and back-of-stage shots of 7th as though you were in an NBA arena with a Goodyear blimp overhead and 360 panoramic cameras catching every angle of his freestyle movement instead of a static two-dimensional stage.
But before Breeze leaves the scene, he tells the story of Fred the Roach and chides the onlookers to drop some change in the cup. Breeze tells his runner to “take the change from the cup go to the store for my usual.”
Breeze continues his anthropomorphic tale of Fred the Roach in a gravely Miles Davis voice by revealing that Fred “was smarter than the other roaches and knew how to freeze in the light and flow in the dark” as 7th (Justin as the Roach) crawled on bended knees across the stage with roachlike antennae ears and captured with a top shot as Fred reminded the listeners that “we all roaches and they going to leave you on your back” as 7th looks up at the ceiling camera curled up in the fetal position.
The second storyteller is Jacoba, the teacher by day and mentor of Bad Ass Girls at night, “because she was once one.” Justin morphs into his signature androgynous female persona, groomed by his role in Charm at Mosaic a few years ago, dropping his hoodie and exposing her shoulders over a halter top as she retreats to the far-right corner of the stage where she challenges her protégés to tell a story.
“Belinda, you next, you gotta leave a story.” Zuu! shouts 7th like a Marine Corp drill sergeant to transition into the next story about “Betty the blind girl with a sister named Nettie, happy as confetti, who crawled out her sister’s window and got in trouble with the fall but her freedom found.”
“My name is Dan, but they call me the Preacher Man.” The third storyteller is a health food store cashier who converts 7th’s hoodie into an apron and kindly advises his customers on the better brands of coconut water. “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you at!” Preacher Man prophesizes as he drops a bilingual code speak, “Domingo, that’s Spanish for Sunday,” as he asks why people of color “are only Latinos and Black.”
Who got next? Say hi to Nubian, the fourth storyteller, who talks with plants and runs with raccoons. The Nubian Griot has a tour guide business and in perfect King’s English recites the history of “when Second Street was a trail, and the Rec Center was the place to be.”
The Griot’s tours encounter a toxic collection of angry haters in the post-9/11 period as he puts Jay-Z on his headphones to calm the inner riot while he climbs on a bus trip through the South “where we were bought and sold.”
The layered characters become a bit confusing on the bus, as Mrs. Jackson quotes a song by Outkast, and a single mother with a child complains to the bus driver, “Too cold, please help,” while 7th tries to connect the hip-hop dots with dimes about Foxy Brown completely in rhyme as he dances with the sounds of birds tweeting in the background.
The next storyteller The Dancer uses his body to spin his tales between drags on an imaginary spliff while he tells his movement class members between breakdance moves that “I know you are not eating a Twinkie in my class.” DJ “the 1da” doubles as the clueless Twinkie-munching student. The Dancer moves to the seductive sounds of fusion jazz as “tha 1da” spins a smooth transition into the instructor’s motto, “You all have the power to move.”
All these characters are the creation of Will Power, the pioneer of hip-hop theater who adapted the Greek tragedy Seven Against Thebes and entitled it The Seven. His presence and unique history allow Flow to transcend the 1986 to 1997 Golden Age of Hip-Hop, and cross over to the 7th Storyteller and the contemporary generation of Freestylers.
A seminal moment in Flow happened when freestyler Sweet Pea accepted a pair of tickets to hear The Sugarhill Gang from an Old Skool rapper who admired the way “they all took the time to write they rhymes!”
But Sweet Pea did not make it to the concert, as Will Power adds a toxic twist and plays out his Seven Greek tragedy theme on the pair of vulnerable “Sista” storytellers who attract the jealous envy, rage, and hate of the bad-ass girls who “couldn’t live with all that white shit.”
You see, freestyling was therapy from the urban trauma that surrounded the lives of creative young Black girls. Sweat Pea never made it to the Cypher, a therapeutic hip-hop retreat from the street she shared with the Seven where she could “release like a mad beast.”
Flow drops hip-hop breadcrumbs from the Golden Age to the present free-flowing genre, but don’t get distracted by the hip references to everybody from commercial power players like JZ to alternative hip-hop artist OutKast, whose 2003 album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below appealed to a wide range of listeners, spanned numerous musical genres, and became one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time.
The sound quality of Flow leaves something to be desired, but for nonstop hip-hop by the best DMV actor/rapper, this version of Flow is a feast for the senses.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
PLAYWRIGHT Will Power
DIRECTOR Psalmayene 24
WILL POWER, THE 7TH STORYTELLER Justin Weaks
DIRECTOR OF VIDEO Wes Culwell
LIGHTING DESIGN Sherrice Mojgani
DJ/COMPOSER/SOUND DESIGNER Nick “Tha 1da” Hernandez
CHOREOGRAPHER Tony Thomas
DIALECT COACH Leigh Wilson Smiley
DRAMATURG Adrien-Alice Hansel
PRODUCTION STAGE MANAGER Allie Roy
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Lücién Reubens
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR Jada Boggs